Turning Disaster into Opportunity

Grid Sustainability

When Hurricane Maria hit the island country of Dominica and the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico in September of 2017, it soon became apparent this was no ordinary storm. Maria was a Category 4 hurricane, with wind speeds reaching an unimaginable 155 miles per hour – nearly those of a Category 5…
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Months after Hurricane Maria slammed Puerto Rico, the impact of Mother Nature’s brutal assault is still being felt. While the grid in Puerto Rico will take a very long time to rebuild, there are many lessons to be learned to help lessen the impact of future disasters, when they occur.

The storm, estimated to have claimed about three thousand lives, was the worst natural disaster to affect the region in years since Hurricane Jeanne in 2004. Maria caused unbelievable ruin to homes and businesses and was especially brutal in Puerto Rico, where it generated $91.61 billion U.S. in damage, making it the third-costliest recorded tropical cyclone, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

An independent study emerged from the Milken Institute of Public Health at George Washington University in collaboration with the University of Puerto Rico Graduate School of Public Health. The report, Ascertainment of the Estimated Excess Mortality from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico focused on deep flaws in preparing for what was the deadliest natural disaster to strike the U.S. in over a century.

“Interview participants from the DPS (Puerto Rico Department of Public Safety), various offices within the DoH (Puerto Rico Department of Health) and EMB (Puerto Rico Emergency Management Bureau) indicated there were also no written, updated agency crisis and emergency risk communication plans in place that specified coordination after DPS’s establishment in April 2017,” said the report.

The report goes on to discuss the chaos that followed immediately after the hurricane, and the “sustained damages” to the Puerto Rico Vital Statistics Registry (PRVSR) which handles death certifications and registration processes, which “…did not have electric power to operate immediately after the Hurricane. Even for the offices which had generators, the electronic system used was not always operational. PRVSR leadership re-deployed staff to offices that were still operational and to San Juan so that, at the very minimum, staff could receive information and begin processing the deaths.

Because the agency’s electronic system was offline, everything was done on paper, and all certificates were collected by supervisors and taken to San Juan for quality review and data entry.” As a result of the lack of electricity, death registrations were delayed or incomplete.

The storm caused the second-worst blackout in the history of the world, with power knocked-out much longer than it was following Hurricane Katrina. Puerto Rico is not massive, measuring about one hundred miles by thirty-five miles – about the size of the state of Connecticut – yet more than half a year after the devastation, the electrical grid was still crippled, leaving many to wonder why.

About half of Puerto Rico’s residents were without any power four months following the hurricane, and blame was centered on the catastrophic damage Hurricane Maria caused to damaged or flooded electrical substations and transmission towers that were wrecked or literally swept away, with only twenty percent still usable. Power restoration has been intermittent at best, with a focus on restoring electricity to where it is needed most, namely hospitals. One of the responders following the hurricane stated that the grid was not in need of repair, but had to be rebuilt, stating he has never see such damage to a power system.

Many natural disasters, ranging from hurricanes to fire, floods, tornados, earthquakes, landslides, volcanoes, and other phenomena can affect power grids worldwide. Some countries and states are more affected than others. When disaster strikes and power is affected, it must be restored as quickly as possible. One option is to reduce the amount of power being used by areas that still have electricity to reduce stress on the system by implementing rolling outages – as was the case in Japan following the Fukushima reactor meltdowns in March of 2011. This lets utility companies restore some power to prevent total blackouts.

Restoring electrical systems following a natural or human-made disaster is a lengthy and expensive process, and the aftermath of Hurricane Maria revealed just how fragile Puerto Rico’s electrical grid truly is. Earlier in 2018, about seven months after the hurricane, it was estimated 3.4 billion customer hours of electricity were lost.

Initial reports looked promising, stating that about three-quarters of municipalities had at least some electricity. Hope immediately evaporated when a bulldozer damaged a 230 kV generation connection, knocking out power. This damage showed not only how delicate the grid was, but it also revealed the many issues going back decades that were not just the result of the hurricane.

A confluence of issues made the entire system vulnerable in the event of a disaster. There were tax breaks over forty years ago to American mainland companies, and the power plants were constructed in the south of Puerto Rico along coastal areas which made the entire system vulnerable in the event of a disaster.

The rebuilding has been hampered by other factors, from difficulty accessing affected areas along to a deeply flawed emergency plan, poor communication, not enough workers and supplies, lack of funds, difficult terrain to navigate, and an overall history of mismanagement.

Many industry experts are indicating the need to emulate the robust electrical systems found in Hawaii, for example. Instead of large power stations, there is a greater emphasis on microgrids – defined by the United States Department of Energy as “a group of interconnected loads and distributed energy resources (DERs) within clearly defined electrical boundaries that acts as a single controllable entity with respect to the grid.” There are also calls for more non-polluting, renewable energy sources (RES), including solar energy, wind, and water (hydroelectric).

Another distinct advantage of microgrids – sometimes referred to as smart grids – is that, in the event of a disaster, they can be brought back online much more quickly than traditional power plants, bringing electricity to where it is needed most, such as hospitals and communications.

Our planet continues to change, and it is not a matter of if, but when, the next hurricane, earthquake, landslide, or other natural or human-made disaster will strike. Hurricane Maria will serve not only as a reminder of how powerful and destructive Mother Nature is, but reinforce the need for stronger and more sustainable grids.

November 22, 2019, 4:37 PM EST